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Marikana is a reminder of the apartheid years

South Africa is riddled with corruption and clientelism but it is not a dictatorship.

Returning to South Africa after a long absence was to feel that everything had changed but everything was still the same. The granite solidity of the Wits University building in Johannesburg – but this time with a female Senegalese professor introducing me to her students. “Did you arrange to come at the same time as Tony Blair?” I was asked. “Only if I could get his speaker fees,” I said. Or the smart general secretary of the Cosatu, South Africa’s TUC, confessing that unions had lost touch with their members – an honesty never heard in Europe.

As with their depictions of their president, South Africans like their politics full frontal. Two decades after the end of apartheid, South Africa still does not know where it belongs in the world or how to end the misery that so many of its citizens endure. It now appears that most of the 34 mineworkers killed in a confrontation with police in the Eastern Cape on 16 August were shot in the back or as they lay
defenceless on the ground.

Like Sharpeville or Soweto, the Marikana massacre is a reminder that the old South Africa has not gone away. The shanty towns a few streets away from fabulously wealthy gated residential areas and luxury stores are a reminder of the old South Africa, even if the black bourgeoisie roar around in BMWs and share expensive restaurants with their former white oppressors. Building a more social-democratic South Africa is as far away as it is in India, Russia or China – countries the government likes to measure itself against.

Having got rid of the one-party rule of apartheid, South Africans now live in a state dominated by the African National Congress. The country is riddled with corruption and clientelism but it is not a dictatorship and still less a neo-authoritarian state such as Zimbabwe or Tanzania to the north. The press is aggressively free. The main weekend story when I visited was about the information minister and who paid for her $2,000 Christian Louboutin red-soled shoes. Lawyers and judges are independent and South African universities and publishing vibrant.

Birthday party

Yet the politics of South Africa happen within the ANC, not as a national contest between parties and visions for the nation. The party, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in January this year, took power in a revolutionary upheaval that was peaceful and cleverly managed by the country’s ruling economic elite. But it was a revolution, and, as with all such overthrows, those who won power will not relinquish it easily. Instead, the inner-party struggle is all that matters.

Nelson Mandela, like George Washington, gracefully gave up power to be the father of his nation. But his successor, Thabo Mbeki, was forced out of power as he lost control of the ANC. He tried to remove his deputy, Jacob Zuma, who came storming back after a brief interregnum by Kgalema Motlanthe, now the vice-president and a possible replacement for Zuma. Mbeki fell in part because of his bizarre stance on HIV-Aids. Zuma, in turn, may be forced out because of his bizarre statements concerning women and his failure to rein in rampant corruption among the ANC elite.

The ABZ – Anyone But Zuma – movement is vigorous; ANC regional branches openly debate a change of leadership and get full coverage in the press. Other candidates exist, among them Julius Malema, the 31-year-old former ANC youth leader. A demagogic populist, Malema is ready to stir any of the many grievances that poor black South Africans have into a denunciation of current power-holders.

Trade unions and the South African Communist Party – the last fully fledged communist party outside China and Cuba – also jostle for influence within the ANC. None has an answer to what the next stage of economic and social development should be. There are calls for nationalisation of the mines, but they make no money and keep hundreds of thousands in low-paid jobs which, in other countries, have been replaced by mechanical drilling and extraction.

South Africa likes to portray itself as a Bric nation. China and Russia are not interested in democracy, and in India there are more undernourished children living side by side with more billionaires than in all of Africa. For two decades, South Africa has been excused hard thinking as the world celebrated the Mandela liberation years. But soon the country will have to make hard choices and the ANC will have to decide if its second century will be marked by an advance towards or a retreat from democracy. Its challenge is to build a political system and government  that puts the public good before personal enrichment.

Denis MacShane MP worked in South Africa in the 1980s with independent black trade unions. He led the Labour Party delegation to the recent Socialist International congress in Cape Town.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.